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Published January 8, 2008 09:03 AM

Carbon Credits to be Used to Fund GM Food Crops

US biotech firm Arcadia Biosciences has announced a plan to help fund the planting of genetically modified rice with carbon credits.

The company will work with the Chinese government to give farmers who plant their crops carbon credits, which they can then sell on the global carbon trading market.

Arcadia is touting its GM rice as a greener alternative to the regular crop. The plant has had a gene inserted to make it absorb nitrogen more easily. This means less nitrogen fertilizer can be used to yield the same results. Most plants absorb less than half the nitrogen in fertilizer.

Nitrogen fertilizer is thought to account for around a third of all agricultural emissions worldwide. The agricultural sector is alleged to produce 17% of all industrial greenhouse gas emissions, more than even the transportation sector. Fertilizers are also a large producer of nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 300 times more powerful than CO2, and their runoff pollutes water. The company says that growing their rice, rather than normal rice, globally would save the equivalent of 50 million tonnes of CO2 and generate $1.5 billion in carbon credits for farmers.

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Arcadia president and CEO Eric Rey said: “A technology that allows farmers to participate in carbon credit markets will give agriculture a clear incentive to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. It’s a way for farmers, and us, to make money, while doing something positive to help the environment.”

The company is working with the Chinese government in the northern province of Ningxia, which uses more fertilizer than any other area in the country, on the first step of the project. Arcadia is running experiments to measure the emissions from traditional rice growing. This information is necessary for Arcadia to achieve its goal of making the rice growing scheme part of the UN’s Clean Development Mechanism, which would give clean technology projects carbon credits as a reward. Arcadia hopes to have the GM planting scheme ready by 2012 in order to take advantage of new carbon markets they think will be created by the successor treaty to the Kyoto protocol.

Arcadia is not just applying this nitrogen uptake improvement gene to rice. They also want to create GM wheat, sugarbeets , maize, rape seed oil, cotton, sugarcane and sod, all of which they hope could also be grown for carbon credits. They hope to expand their program globally. Rey said: “This could be used in all major crops around the world. Considering the growth in global population and the need to increase food production to feed them, this technology could be an important tool to minimise the impact of agriculture on global warming.” UK government officials are helping the company develop their idea.

Arcadia still has a few hoops to jump through before the project is completed and GM rice is actually grown. They must get regulatory approval from the Chinese government to both plant the crops and to allow the farmers to sell it for food. China has allowed GM crops to be planted and sold before, but has never allowed GM staple foods like rice or soy to be grown and sold for consumption. The project will likely meet with some resistance by anti-GMO protesters.

I’m personally in favor of it, although I know a lot of people, especially in the EU, absolutely hate GM food. I’ll eat it all day. They’re not making Tomacco here, just improving the nitrogen uptake of staple crops. Nitrous oxide is an immensely potent greenhouse gas, and runoff from fertilizer is a big source of water pollution. Anything that can reduce the amount of fertilizer used is going to have a big positive impact on the world’s environment. US farmers have been growing GM crops for a while now, and I haven’t seen anyone that can really blame their ill health on eating them, but I have seen a massive chunk of the Gulf of Mexico turn into a dead zone from fertilizer runoff. I say tackle the more obvious problem. What do you think?

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